Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Martin Goodyer (MBPsS MAC).

Why Trust Someone Else’s Definition? Apply the “Diogenes’ Test” Before You Do

Definitions of Team CoachingGoodyer’s Diogenes’ Test: Is it possible to refute a definition with both good nature and absolute clarity?

History is littered with examples of the great and the good coming up with definitions that prove to be less than helpful:

About two and a half thousand years ago in Ancient Greece, some of the better educated Athenians had all but accepted the great Plato’s definition of a human being, because after much deliberation he had distilled it down to this: a ‘featherless bipedal animal’. I’m sure there was much deferential nodding of heads and very little questioning, as they must have assumed all the necessary thinking had been done by someone of his standing and notoriety; because how else could the great man have come to this unique definition? However, the first person to be known as a cynic, an interesting chap called Diogenes of Sinope (not to be confused with plenty of other well known figures along the philosophical timeline named Diogenes – as I think the name must have been as common as ‘Alan’!), was brave enough to call this definition into question. Rather than debating the topic he apparently barged into one of Plato’s teaching sessions holding aloft a freshly plucked chicken crying, “Behold, here is Plato’s man!”

Diogenes was something of a unique character; apparently living in an upturned old bath at the edge of the town square, sleeping naked in the street, and distilling his life down to the very bare (excuse the pun) necessities needed to survive. Like all notable philosophers, he was not afraid to ask challenging questions and put forward his view on how to tackle the challenge of ‘life’. Indeed, so well-known was he, that Alexander the Great made a point of seeking him out when visiting Athens, and when given the opportunity to ask a question of this most important man is reported as saying; “will you move because you are blocking my sunlight”. Fortunately, Alexander was amused by his confidence and his willingness to shed anything he considered unnecessary, and replied; “If I were not Alexander, I should like to be Diogenes!” To which Diogenes quipped “… and if I were not Diogenes, I too should like to be Diogenes!” Clearly, he was both confident and had a sense of humor, and luckily for him so did Alexander. His value of coaching is his willingness to see through politics, hierarchy, and reputation, something we’d be well advised to think about when considering the raft of material claiming to teach and advise about any aspect of coaching. A confident, competent,  light-hearted but serious approach to otherwise difficult issues with clarity as its aim, is the mark of what I like to now call the Diogenes Test, a test that evaluates a definition put forward as being absolute and true,  and asks if it’s possible to simultaneously refute it with good nature and clarity?

The challenge of applying the test is that it can be difficult to let go of any belief once it has been accepted because even when faced with obvious contradictory evidence, there’s no guarantee that adherents to any now-discredited ‘fact’ will back off. If someone of Plato’s obvious intelligence continued to plow his previous furrow by trying to amend his plucked chicken definition by adding that a human had to have toes, then is it not likely that lesser souls will cling to their opinion and defend it? Looking back with twenty-twenty it’s clear why Plato’s definition didn’t catch on, – it really was a bit rubbish, but it’s also interesting to note how once invested in something it is difficult for anyone to back off and reconsider, even when it is clearly not doing what was intended. Sadly, something similar can happen with coaching definitions. Often, the definers have come up with forms of words that are no more appropriate than Diogenes’ plucked chicken, yet coaches cling to them as if they are the gospel according to ‘whoever’; team coaching, group coaching, corporate coaching, business coaching, executive coaching, management coaching, workplace coaching, life coaching, … the list goes on, and along with it a growing list of definitions almost universally either simply ‘made up’, or based on something that a previous enthusiast made up. Like Plato, they are present as fact when in truth they lack any significant empirical evidence and testing Therefore, they rarely stand up to the Diogenes’ Test.

There is no single agreed definition for any form of coaching, never mind the possible niche of coaching teams. Of course, there may be ‘ideas’ about coaching teams, no doubt some of which are worthy of exploration, and while it would be inappropriate to quote definitions given by others, allow me to make up a couple of apparently reasonable definitions of team coaching such as; a method by which a given number of persons engaged in a collective goal are facilitated to recognize and commit to personal actions toward the achievement of that goal. Or perhaps; the application of a sequential questioning approach to person’s engaged with an aligned aim so that they apply existing knowledge to better effect. I could go on and include more complex distinctions, but to what end? If presented forcefully and with explanation, they could easily be accepted as a definition. As such they hold the potential to damage as they do to add value. They are not tested, nor have they been subject to thorough peer review. They are someone else’s ideas about what team coaching should be, so, instead of taking any definition or suggestion about ‘the way to coach teams’ at face value, ask a better question; What is it you want to achieve with this team? What is it about coaching that you imagine might offer a better outcome than straightforward facilitation, team building, or some other well-established method of causing a team to improve performance? What might team coaching include that any other intervention does not, and how do you propose to use this difference to add value? What aspects of coaching in the workplace produce the most effective results, and how might these be included in the intervention you propose? There is no end to questions you might pose to yourself before embarking on team coaching as there is no end to the dynamic circumstances within which team coaching may be applied.

For example, imagine that a team is mired in a sinkhole of internal politics and each team member has unaddressed personal ‘issues’, then consider how some of the proposed team-coaching definitions and approaches might work in these situations? Will a ‘process’ deliver the desired results? Probably not. Will an ‘open discussion about an aligned goal’ end in a successful outcome? Probably not. Whether it be issues of politics, resistance to change, personal problems between team members, unspoken and unacknowledged prejudice within the organization, or other ‘individual’ barriers to the achievement of a team goal, the successful coach will probably need to take a flexible and masterful approach to the application of coaching technology to be successful. Therefore, be your own expert: If you are going to coach teams then start with a very clear end in mind that is specific to that team, refresh your knowledge about coaching techniques and approaches, and only then formulate an approach that is likely to give you the best possible outcome. Ask yourself tough and insightful questions that push you to move past anything ‘standard’, and instead create your own bespoke methodology applicable to that team of people. I submit that any team coaching definition, or indeed any coaching definition will benefit from being subject to the Diogenes’ Test because without it there’s a danger that they may end up being about as useful as a plucked chicken!

Martin GoodyerAbout Martin Goodyer (MBPsS MAC)

Building trust, creating a safe space and recognizing that no leader has all the answers but always has strengths to build on, are hallmarks of outstanding coaching. With an exemplary and extensive track record of coaching built on the solid foundations of a 17 year business career, qualifications in business management and as a psychologist, and now 17 years as a full time coach and coach educator, an author of books on coaching and productivity, a teacher of coaching philosophy and skills at the highest accredited level, and a coach of vast experience working internationally with C-suite clients from India, the US, Africa, Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe and the Far East, Martin is a world class coach.

His coaching style is to effect rapid and lasting performance improvements in both team and individual behavior. Martin also acted as a personal coach to a number of high profile clients in the public eye and is an excellent presenter on seminar platforms, with extensive television and radio experience.

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